By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kenan Gaspar lived up to the old football idiom that he has a nose for the ball, but it was at the Big Island Interscholastic Federation basketball tournament where his pass-catching ability really shined.
The fleet-footed senior snagged a steal and converted a key layup, and Konawaena prevailed over Waiakea 59-58 in the Division I semifinals on Friday night at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, rallying from a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter.
Konawaena (11-0) earned a spot in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state tournament, which will be held Feb. 20-23 on Oahu. It’s the Wildcats’ first trip to states since 2008, when they last won the BIIF title. Konawaena will play Kamehameha at 7:30 p.m. today at Hilo Civic in the championship game.
The season is over for the Warriors (10-4), who lose three seniors in starter Owen Sandstrom and backups Michael Morikawa and Marvin Agdeppa. Waiakea, which edged Keaau 43-42 in the first round on Wednesday, last went to states in 2010, when it was the BIIF runner-up.
Like the score indicated, the Warriors were a persistent until the end. They had a chance to tie it at the line with 5.1 seconds left. But after Lucas St. George swished the first of two free throws, his second attempt rolled off the rim and into the waiting hands of Kona’s Brenton Shropshire.
For most of the second half, Waiakea seemed poised to hand the Wildcats their first loss, outshooting them from the field, 11 of 22 for 50 percent to Kona’s 9 of 24 for 38 percent and building a 57-53 lead with one minute remaining.
Sandstrom hit a short jumper at the elbow, made the back end of two free throws, and Maikai Gahan buried two free throws. It was a four-point cushion. But it wasn’t big enough, not when the Wildcats turned up the pressure.
After Kona’s defense helped the offense get the ball back, Gasper sank a layup, got fouled but missed the free throw. Kona was down by two points with 51.7 second to go. Then he came up big, again.
On the inbound pass, Gaspar made like a wide receiver or cornerback, positions he played on the Konawaena football team, and raced to the rim, dropping in another layup. He was fouled but missed the free throw. But he provided a 57-57 tie with 40.6 seconds remaining.
Waiakea broke Kona’s press and got a good look two feet from the basket. But the ball didn’t go down, the Wildcats fed an outlet pass to Jonah Bredeson, and he beat everyone down the court for a layup and a 59-57 lead with 16 seconds to go.
Still, the Warriors wouldn’t go away or fade easily into the night. They worked the ball inside and St. George was fouled with 5.1 seconds showing on the clock. With the crowd of about 1,200 strong roaring in his ears, he buried his first free throw. The second hit the back of the rim and rolled right off.
“I like the way the guys kept fighting,” Kona coach Donny Awa said. “It wasn’t our prettiest game. That’s for sure. But we fought through it with sheer heart. We never gave up and that was a difference.”
Nick Mims scored 16 of his 25 points in the first half to help the Wildcats to a 29-28 halftime lead. Gaspar finished with nine points, Bredeson eight and Shropshire had seven points.
Waiakea had well-balanced contributions from six players. Sandstrom led the way with 11 points, St. George added 10 points, Gahan had nine, Bryson Ita got eight and Dillon Rellez and Marc Pacris had seven each.
For juniors Brandon Awa and Pookela Hanato-Smith, the victory provides a bit of relief from family ribbing. Their sisters finished not only as BIIF champions, but as Division I state champs as well — Dawnyelle Awa in 2012 and Thea Hanato-Smith in 2011.
“I’m sure Brandon would have heard from his sister, when are you going to win something,” Awa said. “They’re always trying to keep up.”
For Gaspar, one of six seniors, including fellow starters Mims and Shropshire, the Wildcats cleared one big hurdle, which was a long time coming.
“This feels good,” he said. “We’ve been here four years now (in the BIIF semifinals), but we haven’t got past this round. Toward the end of the game, we never gave up. We were down nine points, but we didn’t want this to be our last game of the season. Coach told us to keep our heads up, and just worry about the next play.”
In a game that went down to the wire, there were dozens and dozens of plays that changed the direction of the win-or-go-home semifinal. But when the Wildcats desperately needed something, Gaspar’s nose for the ball made a difference.
“Those layups were huge,” Awa said. “They answered and we answered. It came down to the last points, and we were fortunate to walk away with the win.”
Waiakea 15 13 14 16 — 58
Konawaena 15 14 8 22 — 59